I never thought I would voluntarily write this column.

In fact, my biggest fear in regards to my career has always been that this newspaper space wouldn’t be made available to me because I was part of a major lay-off or decision to close operations in Rockingham County.

You see, that’s the reality of our business — a shrinking corporate industry, still chock-full of individuals with passion for what they do.

Yet, dedicated community journalists and community newspaper personnel like myself, would be lying if we didn’t admit our hope for a better work landscape. But that hope just disguises our intuition that the best days for the industry are behind us.

So much has changed since the day I, as a six-year-old boy, settled with the fact that Major League Baseball wasn’t in the cards, but making the front page was.

More than 20 years later, my childhood dream became reality, thanks to The Reidsville Review.

I’ll never forget waking up at 5:30 a.m. that August morning in 2015 to pick up a copy of the issue, not knowing that my dinky story would make the front page.

That free job audition is laminated on my clipboard, which I've used over the last four years to help document the stories within our community. It only tells the beginning of the story.

It’s the start of this four-year journey that led me to realize my dream isn’t to make a living by filling page A1 with words.

Through telling and sharing your stories, I’ve realized that my passion lives directly in the community and not on the pages that keep its record.

Yet, here I sit, one last time at my newsroom desk, emotions pouring from my soul — simply because it’s hard to give up on a dream.

What causes the real pain is letting go of the distinct privilege of covering this community, especially the people who make it special.

I’ve been blessed to have in-depth conversations with World War II veterans whose sparkle for life reinvigorates my purpose.

I’ve been welcomed in the homes of students directly impacted by community icons John and Mabel Dillard — educators and pillars of the community, whose lives were dedicated to change and helping students pursue continuing education as a career field. And, at a time most other avenues were unfairly closed to African-Americans.

I’ve seen musicians, such as my friend Jacob Vaughan, go from singing the  Star-Spangled Banner for locals, to Nashville, Tennessee, then continue to grow and shine on the stage of life.

I’ve watched as business owners go out of their way to give back and take stock in the place they call home.

I’ve learned about the proper approach to life from community leaders like Mary D. Martin in Madison, whose passion is infectious and love is curing.

I’ve been privy to observe the non-profit work of leaders, such as Jenny Edwards, Dawn Charaba, Heather Adams, Katrina Harrison, Steven Pulliam and many, many others — people who've literally made it a way of life to help others and protect what’s important to them.

My key strokes have shared some of the efforts of these unsung heroes, but quite frankly, I don’t think words can fully describe the impact they’ve made for our children, our health and our overall betterment.

Simply put, in a world full of negative, I’ve witnessed so much positive — right here in our own back yard.

This April, I was blown away by the support we received during Rock-Aid, a benefit concert that raised more than $18,000 for the county's children in need.

The number of people who care about the well-being of others is simply amazing.

I look forward to seeing us come together as a community, putting differences aside, to continue to make positive change.

As I wrap things up on my final shift, I can’t help but think one of the hardest parts of moving on is saying goodbye to the fellow journalists and newspaper brethren that I will forever call friends.

It hurts leaving behind Jim Sands and Susie Spear — two cohorts whose passion for this is unmatched.

When this Yankee set sails for North Carolina, he had no idea what the future entailed.

Thanks to Jim, I found an anchor as a freelance sports reporter.

He gave me freedom to chase my own assignments and trusted my abilities when no one else did.

Jim later went to the plate for me when a full-time position opened in June 2016.  And former editor Gerri Hunt took a chance on this radio guy from Michigan when there were far better resumes to choose from.

If it weren’t for Jim, this dream I’m shedding tears over, would have never happened.

For that I will forever be grateful.

During my tenure as a reporter, I’ve had the best partners in the news department that anyone could ask for.

Susie, I am indebted to you for your generosity, kindness and willingness to help me turn a corner in my reporting.

I wear the fact that I’m the last reporter to ever work for The Madison Messenger proudly, but I am even more proud to say that I worked and am friends with Susie, a fourth-generation journalist from the "Messenger" lineage.

You are a special person and Rockingham County is in good hands with you still reporting here.

To my pal Justyn Melrose, whose writing style and ability still make me jealous, thank you.

I cherish our time working together because of our unwritten goal to re-create a strong standard of reporting for the local papers we represented.

To Evelyn Ridenour and Judy Neal — two of the kindest folks you’ll ever meet — I will forever cherish our friendship and will definitely miss all the warm, yummy plates coming my way.

To Roy Sawyers, the most supportive man in Rockingham County, I am so thankful for our friendship. You put belief in people before they even believe in themselves, and that is a truly special gift. You truly care about your community and providing a service. And I, for one, am grateful for all the times you’ve been there for me.

To my dear friend and former RockinghamNow reporter Danielle Battaglia, a first ballot inductee into the Rockingham County reporter Hall of Fame, thank you for always being my top supporter and friend.

I will forever cherish our discussions over the shared goal of uncovering the truth.

While some people talk about that code, Danielle lives by it. That’s what makes her so special as a journalist.

As for what’s next, I’m entirely unsure.

What I do know is taking a leap is the only way to fall forward.

In the interim, I am excited to spend more time with my top supporters — my beautiful wife and two daughters.

I also look forward to seeing you all out in the community and continuing our discussions.

And guess what?

You don’t have to say off-the-record anymore!

Thank you all.  It’s truly been a pleasure.

Joe Dexter is a staff writer for RockinghamNow. He can be reached at 336-349-4331 ext. 6139 or @JoeDexter_RCN on Twitter.

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